Murphy's Law: February 9, 2004


Most Americans are unaware of the fact that civilians can receive the Purple Heart medal if they are wounded by enemy action. Or, as Army Regulation 600-8-22 puts it, the Purple Heart can be awarded to any member of the Armed Force or any civilian national of the United States who, in service to the country, has been wounded or killed as a result of hostile action by the enemy. This change was made in 1962, at the order of president John Kennedy. This means that civilian employees of the Department of Defense, or anyone working for the government in war time, can get the medal if an enemy of the United States injures or kills them. 

Some 1.53 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since the decoration was established in 1932. This was done to honor the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth. Washington had an established a Purple Heart medal for bravery during the Revolutionary War, but only three were rewarded and the decoration was abandoned. When it was reinstated as an award for those wounded in combat, it was made retroactive for the 250,000 soldiers wounded in World War I. In 1942, the award was applied to everyone in the armed services (not just the army). In 1984, president Reagan made Americans killed by terrorists eligible. The largest number of Purple Hearts were awarded during World War II (950,000), followed by 137,000 in Korea, 200,000 in Vietnam and about a thousand between 1975 and September 11, 2001. Since then, over 3,000 more have been awarded for Afghanistan and Iraq. Up until September 11, 2001, only 16 women had received the Purple Heart. That number will probably more than double before the war on terror is over.

The Department of Defense has awarded Purple Hearts to some civilian employees injured by enemy action in Iraq, but a new decoration was  introduced last year. This is the Defense of Freedom Medal, for civilians working for the Department of Defense who are killed by enemy, or terrorist, action. Contractors for the Department of Defense are also eligible for the award. Until the regulations for the Purple Heart are changed, Department of Defense civilians will be eligible for two medals if they are wounded or killed in action. But in the meantime, the Department of Defense will not give civilians Purple Hearts, but Defense of Freedom Medals instead.


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